P.O. Box 787
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store's mission statement&mdash+easing people--is short, but it says a lot. It gives all our Employees a flag to rally around as we accept only the highest levels of quality in our Guest hospitality, and in our relations with Employees, Suppliers and Shareholders. A common mission is vital. We have lots of different people in the company located in various places, in different time zones, with different challenges every day. But remembering we all share the same mission&mdash+easing people--keeps us united in the unique Cracker Barrel culture. We need a common purpose to grab hold of to remember who we are. In today's business world, the words we frequently use are harsh. But pleasing people lets us talk about feelings and attitudes. Pleasing people is about caring, about letting Guests forget about the lousy day they had as they sit down at a table near the fireplace and order up a favorite meal, getting a genuine smile from the server. All that is something special in the Cracker Barrel experience. A walk through the Retail Store is the same kind of experience. It's not a fast hunt, but a slow tour around the displays. Pleasing people fits that experience, too. Pleasing people recognizes that we have four different sets of people in our picture. And it is all of those people that we must strive to please: our Guests, our Employees, our Suppliers and our Shareholders.
CBRL Group, Inc., was formed in 1998 as a holding company for Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurants, a chain of over 420 restaurants and gift shops located primarily along interstate highways in the Southeast, Midwest, mid-Atlantic, and southwest United States. Cracker Barrel gift shops, considered by management to be an integral part of the restaurant's country atmosphere, sell reproductions of early American crafts and such food items as preserves and old-fashioned candies. CBRL also owns and operates Carmine's Prime Meats, a gourmet food market located in Florida, and Logan's Roadhouse restaurants, which specialize in steaks and are located throughout much of the United States.
Gas and Grits: 1969-80
The first Cracker Barrel Old Country Store was founded in September 1969 by Dan Evins, a Shell gas station operator who felt he could attract more customers if a restaurant and gift shop were located on the station's lot. He borrowed $40,000 and built his first combination gas station/restaurant/store along the interstate highway just outside Lebanon, Tennessee. Within one month, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store began to make a profit. Evins incorporated the company the following year and sold half of the new business to a group of local businessmen, raising $100,000 to open his second gas station/restaurant/store. By 1974, Cracker Barrel was operating ten units, all located along interstate highways and all making a profit.
Although Cracker Barrel's restaurant and gift shop sales grew, Evins' gasoline business was less profitable. When the gasoline crisis hit in the early 1970s, the company began building new restaurants without gas stations attached. In 1974, Evins ended his distribution contract with Shell Oil. The restaurants did so well without gasoline service that Cracker Barrel had eliminated gasoline service from all its locations soon thereafter.
Growth and Expansion in the 1980s
Cracker Barrel's solid growth began attracting the interest of independent investors, prompting the company to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1974. Rapid expansion continued through the end of the decade. By 1983, the company was operating 27 units along interstate highways in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Florida, and Alabama. Between 1978 and 1983, net income and revenues had increased at annual rates of 26 percent and 25 percent, respectively, resulting primarily from the addition of new restaurants. In late 1981, when high interest rates threatened the company's expansion, Cracker Barrel went public, selling shares on the NASDAQ exchange.
Despite Cracker Barrel's continued expansion, sales began to slip. In 1985, Evins tried to stem the slide by making some broad management changes. 'We had some people in our management who had grown up in this company, and we were growing fairly fast for a small company,' Evins told Restaurant Business at the time. 'We realized that what we needed was some heavier parts in our equipment, so to speak.' Changes included the establishment of a new marketing department and the hiring of five executives, all with experience in larger organizations. The impact was immediately positive. Net sales rose 20 percent to $80 million and net income grew 49 percent in 1986, due in part to improved operating efficiency and higher margins on sales.
Cracker Barrel also began opening restaurants near tourist destinations, including Opryland; Gatlinburg, Tennessee; and Hilton Head, South Carolina. By the end of 1987, the Cracker Barrel chain consisted of 53 stores in eight states, with annual net sales slightly over $99 million.
Analysts cite several reasons for Cracker Barrel's success. According to Restaurant Hospitality magazine, 'One has been its unrivaled ability to evoke nostalgia without being corny. Cracker Barrel employees are simply warm and friendly. The stores look old-fashioned but are never cute.' This atmosphere, reinforced by its inexpensive 'country cookin' menu,' helped Cracker Barrel carve out a niche for itself in the family restaurant business.
Cracker Barrel also instituted extensive manager and employee training programs in the 1980s, which greatly improved store efficiency and profit margins. Potential managers spent ten weeks in an extensive training session, whereas hourly employees followed an on-the-job course, called the Personal Achievement Responsibility (PAR) program. Rewards, such as increased wages and cheaper benefits, were given for the successful completion of company-set goals. The result was a turnover rate among hourly employees of 160 percent, approximately half the industry average.
Continued Success Amid Change in the 1990s
Cracker Barrel's tight management system helped it weather the recession in 1990 and achieve existing per-unit sales of over $2.7 million, almost double the per-unit sales of its nearest competitor, Big Boy. Around the same time, however, the company got caught in a controversy when it fired a number of homosexual employees. For a short time, it seemed the controversy would threaten Cracker Barrel's expansion into the northern states. Nationally-televised protests against the firings sprang up in New York City, Atlanta, and a number of other small towns. The City of New York, which held $3.6 million worth of Cracker Barrel shares in a pension fund, threatened to make waves if the company didn't change its policy. Cracker Barrel announced it would no longer fire employees based on their sexual orientation, although protesters claimed that discrimination continued covertly. Despite the controversy (or perhaps because of the publicity it generated), company profits jumped 50 percent in 1991 to $22.8 million. The number of Cracker Barrel units grew to 106.
In the early 1990s, Cracker Barrel opened new restaurants at a rate of over 20 units per year and expanded into states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Missouri. For the first time in its history, however, Cracker Barrel faced some direct competition when Bob Evans Farms, Inc., opened seven Bob Evans General Stores with atmosphere and menu items that closely resembled those of Cracker Barrel. Bob Evans also opened the first of a chain of Hometown Restaurants, slated for development in towns with populations of 30,000 or less.
Analysts predicted heavy competition between the two restaurant chains because both intended to pursue the same market of 'vacationers hungry for a homey atmosphere and comfort food.' Cracker Barrel seemed well prepared for a market share battle. Net income in 1992 rose 48 percent to $33.9 million, and the number of units expanded to 127. A 1992 Consumer Reports survey gave the chain the top customer satisfaction rating, while a survey appearing in the February 1, 1994 issue of Restaurant & Institution magazine found that Cracker Barrel 'has done the job better than all of its family-restaurant competitors.'
Heading into the mid-1990s, Cracker Barrel focused on further expansion and diversification. The company introduced a new format called Cracker Barrel Corner Market. The new stores hoped to take advantage of the burgeoning home meal replacement category--full meals prepared and packaged that required no cooking on the part of the busy consumer. Cracker Barrel opened a few Corner Market stores in business areas of Tennessee to test the concept. The stores initially offered prepackaged Cracker Barrel country cooking meals and later added drive-thru windows and a cafeteria-style counter that offered hot meals. Unfortunately for Cracker Barrel, however, the new stores did not meet expectations, and the project was shelved in 1996.
In 1995 Cracker Barrel embraced a significant change when it hired Ronald N. Magruder as president and chief operating officer. Magruder came from Darden Restaurants and was known for taking the Olive Garden from the position of a small, regional restaurant chain to a national presence. Many analysts considered the hiring to be a positive move. Robert Derrington of Equitable Securities said in Nation's Restaurant News, 'It's a hell of a coup for those guys. ... There comes a time when a company has to map out a succession plan. His coming on board was exactly the thing the company needed now.'
With new management in place, Cracker Barrel set out on an aggressive expansion plan. For the fiscal year ended August 1, 1997, the company exceeded the $1 billion mark in revenues for the first time in its history. The average Cracker Barrel rang up more than $3 million in sales annually, which was nearly double that of competing chains, such as Bob Evans Farms. Cracker Barrel was certainly among the leaders in the family restaurant industry, but the company was not without some growing pains--although revenues during fiscal 1996 increased 20 percent over 1995's sales, net income declined 4 percent, from $66 million to $63.5 million. The drop in net income was the first Cracker Barrel had suffered since 1985. Much of the decline was attributed to the closure of three under performing stores and the slowing of its expansion into the Midwest, particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Intent on following through with its expansion strategy and eager to learn from its mistakes, Cracker Barrel began adapting menus to reflect regional tastes--a necessary step, considering that Cracker Barrel was planning to open about 70 percent of its new stores outside of its core Southern market. Cracker Barrel learned its lessons the hard way when newly opened restaurants in Minnesota and Wisconsin performed rather poorly, where sales were only about 60 percent of sales at restaurants in the Southeast. The company realized that standard Southern fare, such as grits, was not high on the list of Midwesterners' cravings, and Cracker Barrel began to investigate regional foods. In Wisconsin, for instance, Cracker Barrel began to offer bratwurst. Cracker Barrel also added regional touches in decor. For example, a soapbox car was added to a store in Akron, Ohio, where a national soapbox derby was held each year.
By late 1997, Cracker Barrel was back on its feet, and during fiscal 1997 alone the company opened 50 new restaurants. Over a two-year period, in fact, Cracker Barrel had opened about 100 new units. Same-store sales increased by 4.3 percent in fiscal 1997, and operations had been streamlined and made more efficient through changes such as a new point-of-sale system. 'Cracker Barrel is no longer just a regional family dining format that happens to put up impressive numbers,' said Merrill Lynch's Peter Oakes at the time in Nation's Restaurant News. 'It's now an industry leader--taking [market] share and starting to flex its muscle.'
Continuing Diversification at the Turn of the Millenium
In the spring of 1998, Cracker Barrel acquired Carmine's Prime Meats, Inc., headquartered in Florida. The purchase marked the company's reentry to the home meal replacement category, as Carmine's operated two upscale, gourmet food markets, known as Carmine Giardini's Gourmet Market, as well as an Italian restaurant, La Trattoria Ristorante.
Cracker Barrel demonstrated that it was serious about aggressive expansion in early 1999 when it reorganized as a holding company, CBRL Group, Inc., that owned and operated the Cracker Barrel restaurants, Carmine's, and other businesses. Magruder was promoted to president and chief operating officer of the new CBRL Group, while Dan Evins became its chairman and CEO while also continuing his duties as chairman and CEO of the Cracker Barrel subsidiary. Getting right to the task of expansion, CBRL acquired Logan's Roadhouse, Inc., which operated 45 Logan's Roadhouse restaurants in 12 states, for about $179 million in early 1999. Logan's restaurants offered steaks, chicken, ribs, and seafood. CBRL also opened a retail-only test store in a mall in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1999.
CBRL made headway in its quest for expansion and diversification, but the company continued to face some challenges. In April of 1999 Ronald Magruder resigned, and CBRL's earnings for fiscal 1999, which ended July 30, 1999, were disappointing. Revenues rose to $1.53 billion from $1.32 billion in fiscal 1998, but net income fell from $104.1 million to a shockingly-low $70.2 million. Same-store retail sales grew 2.4 percent, but same-store restaurant sales declined 3.1 percent, partly due to menu price reductions. CBRL cut back its expansion plans to 30 new Cracker Barrel restaurants in 2000 and 25 the following year.
Despite a few hardships, CBRL remained determined to grow and succeed. The company worked on refining its Carmine Giardini's Gourmet Market operations and planned to open a third location in 2000. The process of integrating Logan's Roadhouse restaurants into CBRL continued, and the company opened 12 new restaurants in fiscal 1999, with plans to open an additional 12 in fiscal 2000. CBRL also looked to other opportunities to boost revenue--such as e-commerce and retail-only stores--while focusing on continued improvements at its flagship Cracker Barrel restaurants. Founder Dan Evins commented on CBRL's objectives in the company's 1999 annual report: 'As always, our goal is to execute a controlled long-term growth strategy while providing our guests with high quality food and attractive retail shopping. With the changes in place to improve operations where needed at Cracker Barrel, the addition of the Logan's concept to our holding company structure, and the opportunities to leverage our expertise in areas of strength, we believe the future for CBRL Group is promising.' With 426 restaurants in 40 states by mid-2000, there seemed to be no stopping the company from achieving its goals.
Principal Subsidiaries: Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc.; Logan's Roadhouse, Inc.; Carmine's Prime Meats, Inc.
Principal Competitors: Advantica Restaurant Group, Inc.; Bob Evans Farms, Inc.; Big Boy; Darden Restaurants, Inc.; Shoney's, Inc.